By Julie Scharper and Steve Kilar, The Baltimore Sun
7:52 PM EDT, October 13, 2011
Baltimore officials are bracing for the potential of another round of deep budget cuts, as they draw up early spending plans to address a "significant" shortfall next year.
City agency heads confirmed Thursday they were instructed to pare 5 percent of their spending as they craft preliminary budget proposals for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
The mayor's press secretary stressed that the administration was in the "very early stages of the budget process," and said agencies would be asked to draft proposals for other financial scenarios as well.
Fire Chief James S. Clack warned his employees of the possible cuts by posting on a union message board that he had been asked to trim $10 million from the department's budget.
Clack said in the post that the cuts would be tantamount to shuttering five of the city's 56 fire companies, in addition to the three which are currently closed on a rolling basis as a cost-saving measure.
The chief said in an interview that he wished to provide firefighters with the context to understand the magnitude of the cuts, but did not plan to close more companies.
"We don't know what we're going to propose for the 5 percent," Clack said, adding that the finance department would likely change its projections.
A Recreation and Parks spokeswoman said that her agency had also been ordered to draft a budget based on a 5 percent cut, but said the figure was not definite.
"We're still working it out," said spokeswoman Gwendolyn Chambers. The department is expected to close some rec centers and turn others over to third party groups before funding runs out in January as a result of shortfall in the budget for the current fiscal year.
Like other cities, Baltimore has grappled with significant budget shortfalls for the past three years. To close the gap, officials here have slashed services, instituted furloughs, laid off employees and raised more than 60 taxes and fees.
Ryan O'Doherty, spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said Thursday officials "expect a significant budget shortfall" in the city's $1.9 billion operating budget for the coming year, but declined to say what magnitude of deficit was anticipated.
The city's budget director did not respond to requests for comment, and most agency leaders declined to comment.
In an email obtained by The Baltimore Sun, the mayor's chief of staff, Peter O'Malley, instructed agency heads to alert O'Doherty if they received questions about the budget.
O'Doherty declined to comment beyond an emailed statement in which he stated that officials would "continue to assess revenue predictions."
"The mayor does not believe in across-the-board cuts," O'Doherty wrote, explaining that the finance officials use an "outcome budgeting" process in which successful programs receive more money and floundering services lose funding.
Under the system, which the finance department has used for the past two budget cycles, agency heads are required to present preliminary spending plans in early November. Officials review the plans and make alterations based on Rawlings-Blake's priorities, O'Doherty said.
Agency leaders said finance officials had requested them to draft a budget assuming not only a 5 percent cut, but that employees would receive a 2.8 percent raise and there would be no furlough days.
At Rawlings-Blake's request, the city hired a consulting firm last month to draft a 10-year financial plan. Administration officials have indicated that employee benefits will likely need to be trimmed to ensure the city's long-term financial health — which could lead to a heated battle with unions.
Rawlings-Blake's overhaul of the fire and police pension system remains tied up in federal court. The public safety unions sued the city after the mayor signed the measure – which significantly trims benefits – in 2010.
Fire union president Rick Hoffman said Thursday his group would "fight tooth and nail" against additional cuts to the department.
"I don't think the public can afford any more fire cuts," said Hoffman. "The public will not be as safe as they're accustomed to being."
Public Works officials offered a glimmer of hope for residents of the cash-strapped city. A fee for bulk trash pickups, which was slated to be imposed in January, likely will be postponed, a spokeswoman said.
Spokeswoman Celeste Amato said the city likely would not begin charging to haul away large objects until at least July, when the new budget year begins.
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